Can't Anybody Shut Up?

July 08, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- It's not that I held Prince Charles on a pedestal, let alone a throne. Polo is not my sport and the Windsors are not my kind of folks. The ''royals'' always remind me of character actors at a Great Britain theme park.

But who would have guessed that the crown prince would abdicate his country's last lingering claim to the stiff upper lip? Now, in a documentary being aired there, here and everywhere, he confesses royal infidelity.

A broadcast journalist asks the Prince of Wales if he tried to be ''faithful and honorable'' when he was married. Charles answers, ''Yes.''

The journalist then asks the prince if he was. ''Yes,'' says the prince who then pauses and adds, ''Until it [the marriage] became irretrievably broken down.''

With those little words, Charles leaves behind the old world in which royalty and subjects used words like ''faithful and honorable'' and enters the new world in which guests and audiences use words like ''open and sharing.''

So much for British reserve. Apparently nobody told the prince that he could simply and politely decline the public confessional. Now, instead of giving up the throne, he appears to be giving up his citizenship. He's becoming thoroughly Americanized.

On this side of the Atlantic, we have suffered through two decades of escalating confessions on the part of citizens and leaders alike. If ours was ever a repressed country, it long ago turned into an emotional nudist camp. True Confessions abound. Talk shows reign on radio and television. Strangers chat intimately on the Internet. People are spilling the beans all over the neighborhood.

We used to keep quiet about the things we were ashamed of. Now we seem to be ashamed of keeping quiet.

Now Prince Charles is dropping his British discretion as if it were a tainted set of genes, while in America some of us are finally questioning why everyone here has become so garrulous. At last, we want to know: Can't anybody shut up?

It's a curious turn of events for Americans. We have a strong right of privacy and an eroding respect for it. We are ferocious in defending our space from government invasion. But we routinely expose it to the elements in the name of openness and self-expression.

Somewhere along the way from Puritanism to Freudianism to Oprah-ism, we became suspicious of privacy, not to mention secrecy. We regard secrets as if they are all deep dark things, unhealthy to keep, corrosive until exposed to the light.

We expect that husbands and wives, parents and children, governments and citizens, will keep nothing from each other. We are supposed to treat all relationships as if they are trusting and therapeutic. Anyone claiming privacy is seen as a suspect with something to hide.

The president tells us what kind of underwear he wears. The administration pours out details to the nearest journalist. Estranged husbands and wives -- from prince to pauper -- dine out on stories about their ex's. It's a parade of people confessing and expecting understanding from an audience of one or a million.

It all reminds me of a wonderful moment in a Philip Roth novel. One of the characters is so thrilled with his love affair that he wants to share the happy news with his wife. His brother says drily, ''She could live without it.'' So could America. So could Britain.

In the immediate afterglow of Charles' confession, the majority of the viewers in a British television poll rallied around their next king. Few were surprised. The invasion of Charles and Di's privacy was a cottage industry before they began to turn it into a do-it-yourself operation.

But in the end, there's a public need for some privacy and its corollary, dignity. I'm not usually keen on the strong and silent type, but there's something worse than British reserve. It's telling all on the telly.

A final tip from the colonies. When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died, virtually every commentator noted, in awe, her unique characteristic. In an age of compulsive confessors, she kept her peace and cultivated a zone of privacy around a most public life. She neither confirmed nor denied nor explained.

For this, Dear Charles, she was considered an American royal.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist

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